immigrant empathy

I remember entering the arrivals hall at JFK as an immigrant at age 10.  The huge room with cathedral-high ceilings, packed with people of all nationalities, waiting to be admitted to the land of the free and the home of the brave.

I wasn't an immigrant, really.  Just a US citizen who'd never lived more than a few months at a time in my passport country.  

I wasn't an immigrant, technically speaking.  

But I felt like one.  

My childhood experiences had made me into a person without a country, a person hoping for a home.  I spent my first birthday in Mexico, then there were a couple of years in Brazil, then nearly five years in Nigeria.

While Mexico and Brazil had been welcoming places to US nationals, Nigeria was not so much.  Due to a long, painful history with the slave trade and colonialism, white people in general were not highly esteemed.  

In Nigeria, riding down the street on the back of my dad's motorbike, people would throw up their hands at us.  It wasn't a friendly greeting; it was a curse.  I understood why people were angry, but I only felt safe inside the walls of our compound.

So returning to the US, at age 10, was a big, huge, exciting deal for me.  Going from a place I wasn't wanted and didn't belong, hoping to find the place where I was wanted and did belong.

JFK Arrival, flikr

JFK Arrival, flikr

As an adult, I chose to live overseas once again.  Fortunately, in a place that was warmly welcoming to US nationals.

When that beautiful little country erupted into civil conflict, my family had the experience, for about a week, of being refugees.  We were given 15 minutes' notice to leave our house and arrive at the embarkation point to be evacuated by ship to Australia.  

We were allowed one carry-on bag each of belongings.  I took the photo albums and some clean underwear.  The kids picked out what they wanted in their bags: favorite books, stuffed animals, toys.

Andy stayed behind while the kids and I boarded HMS Tobruk.  No cell phones, no email, no contact during the 5 days we were at sea.

Two weeks ago, Andy and I boarded a plane here in Dallas, bound for Doha, Qatar, and then on to Bangkok, Thailand to speak at a conference for expat families.

It's a 13-hour long haul from Dallas to Doha, on a Boeing 777-300, with 368 passengers on board.  Some of them were small children who cried while their moms stood in the bulkhead, bouncing to soothe them.  

Just like I used to do with my babies on those long hauls.  

I listened to Leonard Cohen's latest album for about 10 hours straight, trying to sleep and block out the baby noises.  

As the moon rose over the mountains of Iraq, Steer Your Way was playing, with these lyrics:

They whisper still, the ancient stones
The blunted mountains weep
As he died to make men holy
Let us die to make things cheap

We had a wonderful trip to Thailand.  It was like a layer cake of deliciousness:  food, culture, scenery, people, family, friends, new friends, speaking, listening, sharing.

When we landed back at LAX and got into the "citizen" line at passport control, Andy said, "The citizen line and the foreigner line look just alike."  

And it was true.  Both lines were an almost identical rainbow of skin tones and racial diversity.

I said, "This makes me damn proud to be an American right now."

Less than a week later, we were back at Terminal D at DFW, International Arrivals and Departures.  When I go to Terminal D, I'm normally going someplace awesome in our big, beautiful world, or meeting a loved one who's arriving back from overseas.  

But Saturday night, we were out at Terminal D because people with legal visas to enter the US were being detained as per Executive Order, issued while they were in transit.

When we heard this news, every single cell of my immigrant self just cried out in pain.

The little girl who came to JFK, feeling so outcast and hoping for a home, felt that pain.

The grown-up who left a home with 15 minutes notice, one suitcase, and four small children felt that pain.

The last-week self who stood proudly in a rainbow line felt that pain.

So we went to DFW and we stood with others who were feeling that pain.  Not because we thought that protesting would cause a change overnight, but because the people who were in that pain needed to know that they were not in it alone.

And because of what Mr. Rogers said:

I was spared from any great disasters when I was little, but there was plenty of news of them in newspapers and on the radio, and there were graphic images of them in newsreels.

For me, as for all children, the world could have come to seem a scary place to live. But I felt secure with my parents, and they let me know that we were safely together whenever I showed concern about accounts of alarming events in the world.

There was something else my mother did that I’ve always remembered: “Always look for the helpers,” she’d tell me. “There’s always someone who is trying to help.” I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.

I think a lot of us have realized this recently:  not only can we look for the helpers, we can BE the helpers.

We're ready to jump in when things go wrong.

That's not hysteria.  

It's empathy.

Empathy is what allows us to feel alongside someone else, to care about how they feel, because we know that under our rainbow skin, all our feelings are one.

Empathy is the gift of connection that comes out of our pain.  

Empathy is Love calling to Love, recognizing our mutual humanity.

Empathy is what makes us into helpers, into healers.

Empathy allows us to look into the faces of strangers, even enemies, and find family.

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